ABC’s “Once Upon a Time” returns from its midseason break on March 1, kicking off the second half of its fourth season with an arc centered around the Queens of Darkness — Maleficent (Kristin Bauer van Straten), Cruella de Vil (Victoria Smurfit) and Ursula (Merrin Dungey) — as they join forces with Rumpelstiltskin (Robert Carlyle) in pursuit of their own, villainous happy endings.

Variety was among a number of outlets who spoke with “OUAT” exec producers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz about the show’s return, including the ominous teaser that debuted during the Oscars telecast and seemed to imply that our hero, Emma (Jennifer Morrison), might somehow be tempted towards to the dark side…


Variety also caught up with Kristin Bauer van Straten to discuss Maleficent’s return and whether the three wicked women will be able to work together. Read on for the trio’s teases about the “Once’s” Sunday premiere, titled “Darkness on the Edge of Town.”

Who Will Save the Savior?
As the Oscar teaser indicated, Emma will face a new challenge in the back half of season four — one that could lead her off the righteous path and right into the hands of the villains. “One of the big themes for the second half of the season that we want to deal with is, ‘What makes someone a hero and what makes someone a villain?’ and what the differences are and what the common ground is,” Kitsis explained. “Emma has spent a long time in the series being told she’s a savior and being told she’s a hero, and now she’s going to have to face that it’s not as black and white as that. I think going into this second half, all of our characters are going to be wrestling with this idea of good and evil, not just in terms of what they’re facing as an external threat, but internally and within themselves.”

Identity Crisis
Emma won’t be the only one grappling with questions about who she really is — many of our core characters will face a crisis of conscience in the final batch of episodes. “What we really want to explore is, if you’ve done a bad thing, can you come back from it, can you become the person you want to be, even if you didn’t start out that way? And vice versa,” Kitsis teased. “What makes a hero and what makes a villain is a point of view. That, to us, was really interesting as opposed to just black and white, ‘I’m good, you’re bad,’ and ‘I’m a villain and I’m coming here to do villain stuff.'”

Evil Wishlist
Kitsis and Horowitz have a lot of options when it comes to choosing which iconic Disney characters they want to give the “Once”-over, but they admitted that Maleficent, Ursula and Cruella were their top picks for this new arc. “Maleficent was previously on the show, and we always wanted to get back to her, which is why we never fully killed her. Ursula we set up a little bit and teased in the Ariel episode, and we think she’s a lot of fun. Then, Cruella, we just liked her, really — there’s a sass to her,” Kitsis told reporters. “What we wanted was for Gold to take the lesson of the heroes who always work together and realized he needed to work together with the villains, so we just loved the idea of a team of evil. When we were saying our wishlist of who we wanted to write, it was these three.”

Horowitz agreed: “If you keep watching you’ll see there’s a connection between all of them, and between our characters that I think will, hopefully, make it more clear why those three in particular.”

Bauer van Straten admitted that returning to “OUAT” has been a blast “because Merrin and Victoria are so much fun. As the episodes go, we start to see the fighting for power and the search for what we’re actually after. It’s a little like ‘Survivor: Disney Characters,’ what people want to reveal to each other… It’s safe to say that we have some interesting relationships to explore with the different characters that the show creators have brought together, and that there is a history there. We know that [Maleficent] had a history with Regina [Lana Parrilla], but now we’re introducing Ursula and Cruella, and we’re going to find out more about their history. These villains have crossed paths in the most fascinating ways, and everybody is looking for what they conceive of as their happy ending.”

The Dark One Gets Darker
Rumpelstiltskinis playing puppet-master to the Queens of Darkness, which certainly has the potential to backfire, but after Belle (Emilie de Ravin) banished him from Storybrooke and took possession of his dagger in the midseason finale, Kitsis described the imp as “a man who’s lost everything… He is going to do his Rumplest to get it all back, so you are going to see full Rumple… The Queens of Darkness believe they’re working with Rumple, but we all realize you work for Rumple.”

Bauer van Straten’s character certainly isn’t in any rush to trust the Dark One, despite his assurances of teamwork. “I like to think that Maleficent is very bright and so I like to think she trusts him not at all, even if we’re saying that she is trusting him,” she laughed. “The writing is so intelligent that even me, playing the character, wouldn’t always know at any given moment, how much there’s an alliance and how much there’s a plan to double-cross in the future on anyone’s part.”

If Rumple survives his alliance with the evil trio, is there any hope for Beauty and the Beast’s reunion in Storybrooke? The producers were cagey, but admitted that they wanted to use Belle and Rumple’s separation as a way to further develop Belle as a character. “Belle has to be strong and I think one of the things that happened in that relationship with Rumple was, as his lies grew, and his betrayal grew, the audience was seeing that Belle was unaware of any of this and we really wanted to build to her discovery and then letting her act out of strength,” Horowitz reasoned. “Now, if they are to have any chance to be together she has to be a strong person and what he has to do [to earn her trust back] is going to be, probably, pretty difficult.”

“What we also like is how many people were so upset by his behavior, yet he warned us in ‘Skin Deep,’ ‘I’m a difficult man to love,’ and we just don’t want to believe it,” Kitsis laughed.

Life, Death and School Dances
We’ll see some familiar faces in the back half of the season, including the return of Eion Bailey’s August, who may be able to assist with Regina and Henry’s (Jared Gilmore) ongoing quest to find the author of the storybook. “If you’re searching for the author, they’re going to check with the guy who rode into town with the typewriter,” Kitsis teased. They declined to reveal how that might happen, though,  given that August was previously transformed back into Pinocchio…

One former cast member you shouldn’t expect to see any time soon is Jamie Dornan, whose schedule is fairly hectic thanks to a little-known film called “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

“I would love to have Christian Grey back — in fact, when we were up there filming [episode] 13 we got to hang out with him, but I don’t know if you know this, he’s a huge movie star,” Kitsis quipped. “If the schedules ever worked out, everyone would be thrilled to have The Huntsman back. I can tell you that his schedule this year is nonstop.”

It wouldn’t be “Once Upon a Time” without the possibility of losing some beloved characters, although the producers played coy on the prospect of killing any regulars. “There’s going to be some death. Will there be death of one of our main characters? Do you have a request?” Kitsis joked.

The duo also teased that, on a show so preoccupied with true love, there’s a chance that Henry might have his own opportunity for romance somewhere down the line. “I think there’s a junior high dance for him in the future,” Kitsis said. “I don’t know if it’ll be this half of the season, but absolutely.”

Not-So Evil Queen?
Regina is still trying to pursue her own chance at a happy ending without reverting to her evil ways, despite having altruistically said goodbye to her true love, Robin Hood (Sean Maguire), in the midseason finale. In the back half of the season, she will continue to struggle, according to Horowitz: “There’s always an element, with Regina, of coming to terms with what she was and what she wants to be.”

“But she’s so strong,” Kitsis pointed out, before teasing, “Regina’s going to have a huge curveball thrown her way this second half.”

Her relationships with Emma and Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) will also come to the forefront in the last run of episodes. “Regina hasn’t been that open to [Emma’s] friendship but I think we’re going to see that change a little bit,” Kitsis said. “I think that the natural evolution of their growth is fun for us because Regina and Emma is a huge part of [the show]. It started with her trying to get her out of town, and they’ve fought together and they’ve fought against each other, and so now I think whether or not they can be friends, we’re going to see in the second half.”

Of Regina’s tumultuous dynamic with Snow, he added, “One of my favorite scenes of this year was in the two-hour we did, [titled ‘Smash the Mirror’], when they were walking and Snow White said to Regina, ‘I have to believe we have a chance of grace…’ We just love the fact that these two, despite everything, can come together because they started out as friends. They started out with Regina saving her life.”

Bauer van Straten admitted that Maleficent’s relationship with Regina is equally layered: “They have a very long relationship and in a long relationship with villains, it’s gone through phases of deep alliance and the reverse, and maybe my feelings in playing a lot of those scenes were colored by Kristin’s love of Lana Parrilla, those scenes just felt so comfortable to me and she really loves to play. It’s just such a pleasure to work with her. And so I felt this deep kinship between Maleficent and the Evil Queen that underlies all of the machinations over the years. I think that while Maleficent is still in the throes of her selfish games that she just can’t not focus on, Regina going good is just pathetic; it’s just softness; it’s just gross!”

“Once Upon a Time” returns Sunday, March 1 at 8 p.m. on ABC. What are you most looking forward to seeing in the midseason premiere?